Stephan Balliet, centre, arrives in court on Monday. He was found guilty of double murder, attempted murder and sedition © Ronny Hartmann/POOL/AFP/Getty

A German court has sentenced a rightwing extremist to life in prison after he attempted to attack a synagogue in the city of Halle and killed two people last year.

Judges found 28-year-old defendant Stephan Balliet guilty of double murder, attempted murder and racial incitement. The attack had shaken many Germans as it brought home the rise of rightwing violence.

Ulrike Demmer, a spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the trial in Halle showed that Germany must “step up its fight against anti-Semitism, xenophobia and anti-democratic ideologies, and it’s good that justice was dispensed today”.

The trial came to an end 14 months after Mr Balliet tried in October 2019 to break into a synagogue while worshippers prayed on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Prosecutors said his inability to get past the synagogue’s heavy wooden entry door prevented a massacre.

After throwing explosives and shooting at the door but failing to enter, the attacker turned his homemade guns on bystanders outside, shooting dead a 40-year-old woman walking past him on the street and a 20-year-old man eating lunch at a nearby kebab shop.

Reading the verdict on Monday, presiding judge Ursula Mertens called it a “cowardly attack”, according to local media. “I’ll spare naming the motives for you. They are dumb and cannot be logically understood.”

The defendant made little reaction to the verdict as it was read, only taking down notes.

The court which heard the case against Stephan Balliet © Hendrik Schmidt/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

Balliet was not a known member of any political or far-right groups, and appears to have been self-radicalised online. According to investigators at the trial, he spent hours online playing first-person shooter games and posting on forums and image boards that have become an echo chamber for extremists around the world. 

He allegedly sought to emulate the Christchurch shooter who gunned down 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand, calling it a “wake-up call” in documents investigators said they found on his computer. 

In a live stream of his attempted attack, Balliet denied the Holocaust and denounced feminism and “mass immigration”. He looked into the camera and said: “The root of all these problems is the Jew.”

During the trial, Balliet cited the 2015 influx of immigrants into Germany as part of his motivations, and expressed remorse for the fact that his victims had been ethnic Germans. “I shot white people,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that.”

A loner who barely left his bedroom, Balliet spent hours in an online world that investigator Fabius Damm, of Germany’s federal police, described in court as a “hodgepodge of conspiracy theories, misogyny and anti-Semitism”. They shared images of sexualised anime cat-girls, swastikas and videos of Wehrmacht soldiers giving Hitler salutes.

It remains unclear how much Balliet’s parents might have been aware of his intentions. They both refused to testify in court.

A trial is still ongoing for the June 2019 killing of politician Walter Lübcke, whose suspected killer was a known neo-Nazi. Earlier this year, assailants shot dead nine people with immigrant roots in the western city of Hanau. 

Such attacks come amid rising concerns of far-right sympathies among certain police units and military branches.

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